November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving, Everybody. May your day be a joyous one with NFL games all in a row. May the cranberries and pumpkin pie be as delicious as the tofo turkey.

We homeless hate holidays since the few establishments where we can hang out and do constructive (and, for some, not-so-constructive) things are sure to be closed. BUT, for the homeless, there are many opportunities to get good free eating, albeit with a few ill-mannered homeless folks at the table. AND the food is plentiful and traditional and great. Loaves & Fishes served a Thanksgiving lunch on Tuesday with good-as-fresh leftovers for today's lunch. The mission will serve a Thanksgiving meal to us tonight. And the Salvation Army will be serving Thanksgiving fixings tomorrow at about noon.

It has been raining in Sac'to -- but not too badly. This is the first real rain in my six sad months on the street. Rain, the experienced homeless tell me, is the primary enemy of the homeless. Well, that and parole officers and bouts of food poisoning.

I am happy enough, even more than enough, my friends. Not to fret. Be well, y'all. Be happy, everybody.


-- Tom

HoTo Honored with posts in IpsoSacto and On Homelessness in America

I am late becoming aware of and acknowledging (1) a post in ipsoSacto [link] and (2) being on the 'roll of On Homelessness in America [link]. ipsoSacto is THE premier Sacramento-area metablog; it is to the metropolis of Sacramento what Blogmandu was to Buddhism, and this blog (and I) are highly honored to be singled out by ipsoSacto's splendid writer, John. In his post last August, John pulled a juicy tease of a quote from Homeless Tom's first blogpost.

On Homelessness in America, with The Homeless Guy [link] and Under the Overpasses [link], is one of the powerful voices for homeless folk we have goin' in this country. With the planetwide spiralling-down economy, we homeless people are going to see our population swell and our resources greatly diminished. Voices like those of Ryan Garou [OHIA], Kevin Barbieux [THG] and the anonymous blogger of UTO can save lives. I LOVE YOU GUYS. Don't stop doin' what your doin' and thinkin' about tomorrow.

By the way ... Ryan is the author of a 168-page book, also titled On Homelessness in America, described by the publisher thusly: "A meditation on homelessness in America; the realities of it, the causes of it, and what can be done about it." The book, in a new second edition, can be downloaded for a wallet-friendly two-and-a-half bucks! Update, update, update!: As Ryan tells us in a comment to this post, his book can be downloaded free, in doc format, at Cloud Bird Trail.

November 25, 2008

The Anomie of Homelessness and the Anomie of Western Buddhism

I want to set the ground for an issue I want to get heavily into later. It begins with a definition of anomie and then an exploration of the Typograpy of Deviance, the ways and reasons people pull away (or are pushed away) from what is accepted or normal for their society.

Anomie comes from the Greek, literally meaning "without"+"law." With respect to sociology, it's meaning is defined -- at dictionary.com -- thusly: "A state or condition of individuals or society characterized by a breakdown or absence of social norms and values, as in the case of uprooted people." But this is better for our purposes, a quote from an essay at the South Carolina University webspace, using Sociologist Robert K. Merton's definition as he came to use it in his 1968 book Social Meaning and Social Structure, writing: "when society places a greater stress on achieving the culturally preferred goals (whatever they are) but does not equally stress the approved norms regulating the means to achieve those goals, society is in a state of anomie." Merton’s concept of anomie in the broadest sense is concerned with the disparate emphasis which exists between cultural goals and institutionalized means. More narrowly defined, however, anomie is said to exist when the “cultural (or idiosyncratic) exaggeration of the success-goal leads men to withdraw emotional support from the rules."

Anomie seems to be used focusedly in describing homeless people. This is understandable, for what group could more centrally be pointed at as those who have fallen out of the general society or culture where they are? And, yet, from my experience, swimming in the pool of homelessness, it is its own culture, rich with a grand variety of individuals. It is an open question, for me, whether Merton's Typography of Deviance, as constructed, slots us homeless properly.

Also of great interest is a look at so-called Western Buddhism [aka, New Buddhism or American Buddhism], defined as a deviant life choice. How do the typically caucasian persons who are attracted to Western Buddhism in America come to the religion? What can we say about individual Western Buddhist's goals and means which induce them to practice our religion? How big a component, ultimately, is the rejection of Christianity or Judaism or secular atheism/agnosticism? or, do Western Buddhists always/usually/ultimately come to "play their own game" within the context of the larger society (that is, are we typographically rebels)?

So, now, this of central importance to the discussion, something that comes to me after first visiting Ryan Garou's blog On Homelessness in America [link] and then doing a bit of googling. It's a brief overview of Robt Merton's Typography of Deviance found at the mashica webspace:

In 1938, the sociologist Robert Merton wrote about anomie using the term to mean the DISCONTINUITY BETWEEN CULTURAL GOALS AND THE LEGITIMATE MEANS FOR REACHING THEM. For example, the idea of monetary success (in the USA, where Merton did most of his studying) is a very strong goal shared by virtually all of the population. However, this goal is not always accompanied by a socially acceptable means to fulfillment. This anomie places stress on the society and causes dysfunction in its specific groups that lack the possiblity to attain those same goals. The fruit of this dysfunctionality in society is called, by Merton, deviance. Deviance, I propose, is the twin sister of disobedience and can be easily used as syonyms one for the other.

Each person's reaction to the anomie is to be understood as a mode of adaptation. For Merton, there are 5 basic modes of adaptation to anomie in his (and our) society: Conformity, Innovation, Ritualism, Retreatism, and Rebellion. This is also known as Merton's deviance typology.

CONFORMITY is the typical successfull hardworking person who both accepts the goals of the society and has the means for obtaining those goals. This is an example of NON-anomie.

INNOVATION is the form of adaptation of the person who has accepted the goals of the society but does not have the ability to attain those goals. This person, then, creates a new way of obtaining the same goals by different means. This is the role of creativity! This the most typical anomie. Many persons of this type can be very beneficial to society in the long run. However others included in this group are thieves or other criminals (say, of the white-collar variety).

Adaptation in the form of RITUALISM represents the person who in spite of not having the goals of the society, continues to participate in the means. This is the person who works hard but has no desire or is ambivalent to becoming successful. This is also the typical role of a beaurocracy that is followed as an end in itself; or an inflexible following or an insistance on rules for everything.

RETREATISM: The person who rejects the means AND the goals is said to be retreating from society. Stereotypically, this adaption to anomie is represented by the person who refuses to participate in society; the drug-addict, the street person.

The last category of adaptation is REBELLION. The rebel may or may not have accepted the the goals and may or may not have accepted the means to the goals. The goals or/and means are replaced by other goals and/or means. If he acts within the means to fulfilling a goal, he does so for reasons that have nothing to do with the goals of the society as a whole. He is playing his own game.


November 24, 2008

Took another personality test.

Below, are my results on a Personality Disorder test I took today. My scores are in black; average scores are in gray. Note: I have NO personality disorder, scoring low on all but three tests -- with each of the three in different general areas. Note, too, that my current unusual and highly-stressed circumstance weighed in a lot with my answers, as did my Buddhist orientation toward the world -- and how that skews things I can't easily guess. So, the results may not say a lot. The result I most question is Histrionic. I am at least up to near average with my Histrionastasy! Damn it to HELL!!

Paranoid42%49%
Schizoid78%53%
Schizotypal38%53%
Antisocial30%47%
Borderline62%47%
Histrionic18%43%
Narcissistic34%41%
Avoidant38%39%
Dependent30%37%
Obsessive-Compulsive43%40%

*scores in gray are the average web score


Test Note: Read the descriptions below to avoid misinterpreting test results (for example, the Antisocial classification does not mean you are a loner, it means you tend to be insensitive towards others).
General Note: the validity and reliability of DSM personality disorders are still lacking in strong statistical evidence and clear agreement in the scientific and medical community. They are determined by the American Psychiatric Association and will likely be revised in the future.
Author Note:I don't think Schizoid personality is a valid disorder (read), some of the smartest people in history were schizoid because they occupied a remote end of the intelligence bell curve. Schizotypal personality can encompass highly original thinkers as well as totally insane people so I think it's a flawed type. I think the remaining eight disorders are generally valid.

Disorder Info
Eccentric Personality Disorders: Paranoid, Schizoid, Schizotypal. Individuals with these disorders often appear odd or peculiar.
Paranoid Personality Disorder - individual generally tends to interpret the actions of others as threatening.
Schizoid Personality Disorder - individual generally detached from social relationships, and shows a narrow range of emotional expression in various social settings.
Schizotypal Personality Disorder - individual is uncomfortable in close relationships, has thought or perceptual distortions, and peculiarities of behavior.

Dramatic Personality Disorders: Antisocial, Borderline, Histrionic, and Narcissistic. Individuals with these disorders have intense, unstable emotions, distorted self-perception, and/or behavioral impulsiveness.
Antisocial Personality Disorder - individual shows a pervasive disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others.
Borderline Personality Disorder - individual shows a generalized pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, and observable emotions, and significant impulsiveness.
Histrionic Personality Disorder - individual often displays excessive emotionality and attention seeking in various contexts. They tend to overreact to other people, and are often perceived as shallow and self-centered.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder - individual has a grandiose view of themselves, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and is present in various situations. These individuals are very demanding in their relationships.

Anxious Personality Disorders: Avoidant, Dependent, Obsessive-Compulsive. Individuals with these disorders often appear anxious or fearful.
Avoidant Personality Disorder - individual is socially inhibited, feels inadequate, and is oversensitive to criticism
Dependent Personality Disorder - individual shows an extreme need to be taken care of that leads to fears of separation, and passive and clinging behavior.
Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder - individual is preoccupied with orderliness, perfectionism, and control at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency.

November 23, 2008

Bad Buddha makes Good

I knew from a Oct. 30 post in Bad Buddha, "'Genesis Run' in Tricycle," that ebwrite [aka, Ed Brickell] had a piece — based closely on a post in his prior blog — that would appear in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. And from a Nov. 10 post, "Free for all," I knew that the piece was online at the Tricycle webspace. Now that I've seen the glorious, wonderful, high-styled, philosophical, keenly-descriptive, nature-loving, hard-steppin' words in hardcopy in Trike's Winter issue, I must complement Ed for his skillful writing and the touching, refreshing sentiments in his "my view" piece. I'm delighted for Ed and Tricycle readers that "Genesis Run" was published. And I am delighted that Bad Buddha can expect a bevy of new readers, who will be rewarded with reading others of Ed's beautifully well-written posts.

Also, I cannot help but do a few arm-pumps and voice a few hoorays for the Blogisattva Awards which wisely, most-appropriately gave Ed its vaulted Wordsmithing Award in February, honoring him for the beautiful way he slung words together in his blogposts in calendar year 2007. You go, Blogisattva jurors/voters! [Oh, and YOU GO, ED of course, too.]

Also #2, I am very happy because Ed is a proud supporter of homeless folk. Hooray, Ed, that.

Here, a wonderful, yet typical, paragraph ... from early on in "Genesis Run":
As I got out of my car and stood facing the lake in my running clothes, I breathed the rain-washed freshness of the air. Squinting into the clouds of mist hanging over the lake’s suddenly lively surface, everything around me wet, gleaming, and dripping, I felt as if I stood at the cradle of something unfamiliar and primal — a newborn world, a scruffy child pushed squirming, wet, and steaming, from the cosmic womb. My mind turned to the biblical story of creation, which I had recently been rereading for the first time since beginning my Zen practice.
See? Wud I tell ya? Great stuff, this.

Personality Test Results

Yo, Readers,

I took a personality test, inspired by James Ford of Monkey Mind doing so. Not sure I'm happy with the results -- hmm, the test says I'm worrying and insecure -- but some of what is here sounds about right. Of course, my ongoing homeless circumstance and enormous stressors influence these results in curious ways. The test shows me to have a high extraversion score: that really comes from sympathy I have for others in circumstances like mine these days, not because I am much of a party animal. Really, I am very shy.

I like that of my traits it says that I am "in the middle." The Middle Way, y'all!

Try one -- or more -- of these tests yourselves, readers, for fun and adventure.


Stability results were moderately low which suggests you are worrying, insecure, emotional, and anxious.

Orderliness results were moderately low which suggests you are, at times, overly flexible, improvised, and fun seeking at the expense of reliability, work ethic, and long term accomplishment.

Extraversion results were moderately high which suggests you are, at times, overly talkative, outgoing, sociable and interacting at the expense of developing your own individual interests and internally based identity.


trait snapshot:

changeable, in the middle, suspicious, somewhat traditional, dislikes chaos, down to earth, group oriented, practical... you scored in the middle on the overall factors of this test.

November 22, 2008

Thinking about Not-Thinking

Saw the November 8 copy of NewScientist on the racks at the local public library, and couldn't resist the cover story title, "Vacant Mind, Busy Brain," since I had to think meditation might play a part. In the issue, I found the story, there titled "Private Life of the Brain," and then found it online, where it's titled "The Secret Life of the Brain." [Whew! A many-named thing, this -- but, then, I go by the three names of Tom, Mr. Armstrong, and Hey, You, and God, to some, is God, Jesus and Holy Spirit, so perhaps I shouldn't complain.]

Click to enlargeAnyway, before I touch on the main article, there was indeed a direct Zen connection, told in a green aside-box captioned "the meditating mind," which led me to a PLoS ONE article from September last titled "“Thinking about Not-Thinking”: Neural Correlates of Conceptual Processing during Zen Meditation."

Unhappily, I am not subscribed to PLoS ONE, but I can read the article abstract which includes this esoteric-yet-revealing explanation of the research results: "While behavioral performance did not differ between [Zen practitioners and a control group, the Zen guys] displayed a reduced duration of the neural response linked to conceptual processing in regions of the default network, suggesting that meditative training may foster the ability to control the automatic cascade of semantic associations triggered by a stimulus and, by extension, to voluntarily regulate the flow of spontaneous mentation." How about them apples!! Basically, what this means is that practitioners of meditation have an improved ability to switch which areas of their brains are "turned on." They have more brain control, which, on the physical level, is what happens when people are more in charge of their minds, it seems.

The article begins by citing a study done in 1953 that showed that our brains use just as much oxygen when they are busy, doing arithmetic problems, than when they are seemingly idle, resting with eyes closed. This evidence was at odds with the idea then (and long afterward) that are brains are old-style computers that go into stand-by mode when not brought into use. Indeed, building on the study, scientists now know within the brain is "an organ within an organ" that some now call "the neural dynamo of daydreaming" and others believe has a more-curious role, knitting our memories into a personal narrative. This so-called organ within the brain goes to work when conscious activities become idle -- thus, the brain's constant, level oxygen needs.

A 2001 study identified the regions of the brain that were "turned on" when the consciousness areas were idle. [See article "A default mode of brain function" by Marcus E. Raichle, et al, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (aka, PNAS).] This study and subsequent ones [see NewScientist 24Mar2007 p. 36 and Science vol 315, p. 393] say, from what was known about the turned-on regions, that daydreaming is what goes on there.

But now scientists are starting to suspect that the default network does more than just daydream. This from the recent NewScientist article:
Raichle reported last year that the network's resting waves continued in heavily anaesthetised monkeys as though they were awake (Nature, vol 447, p 83). More recently, [Michael D.] Greicius [a prime research scientist in this area of study] reported a similar phenomenon in sedated humans, and other researchers have found the default network active and synchronised in early sleep (Human Brain Mapping, vol 29, p 839 and p 671).

It threw a monkey wrench into the assumption that the default network is all about daydreaming. "I was surprised," admits Greicius "I've had to revamp my understanding of what we're looking at."
Today, Raichle believes "the default network is involved [in] selectively storing and updating memories based on their importance from a personal perspective - whether they're good, threatening, emotionally painful, and so on. To prevent a backlog of unstored memories building up, the network returns to its duties whenever it can."

This research also is an avenue at better understanding dementia. From the article: "[Research scientists] have since found that the default network's pattern of activity is disrupted in patients with Alzheimer's disease. They have also begun to monitor default network activity in people with mild memory problems to see if they can learn to predict who will go on to develop Alzheimer's. [This is of keen interest to me since both my parents had dementia (which was in both cases probably Alzheimer's) when they died. I have some word-find memory problems which, with my parents' histories, suggests I likely will suffer from the disease in the future.]

And now, back to zen meditation: This is merely my speculation, but I think we might suppose that meditation is greatly helpful to us because it begins by organizing our thoughts, behind the scenes. And since this organizing is based on our "personal perspective," a compassionate and wise effort makes us more coherent and harmonious than if the organizing was done without such guidance. Having a more-organized, compassionate, wise and harmonious mind, we are brought closer to the reality of our life and life's meaning, generally. With confusion swept away, enlightenment becomes possible.

November 15, 2008

Compassion is like wild flowers and not like veal farming

I know this sounds somewhat like me, contrarian that I am known to be: It seems I have come out in opposition to Compassion.

Seems that many of the blogs I follow have posted about an idea that Karen Armstrong [no relation to me] has that a Charter For Compassion be developed.

In an On Faith post called "Calling All Religions to Compassion," Armstrong writes:
The major task of our generation is to build a global community where people of all persuasions can live together in mutual respect. If we do not achieve this, we will not have a viable world to hand on to our children. We must implement the Golden Rule globally, treating other peoples ~ whoever they may be ~ as we would wish to be treated ourselves. Any ideology ~ religious or secular ~ that breeds hatred or disdain will fail the test of our time. The religions should be making a major contribution to this essential task ~ and that is why it is important to sign on to the Charter of Compassion, change the conversation, and make it cool to be compassionate.

We hope that hundreds of thousands of people ~ Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Confucians and atheists all over the world will contribute their insights on line on our multi-lingual website. The world will help to write this Charter to return religion to the spirit of the Golden Rule. Can we make a difference? "Yes We Can!"
The reverend Danny Fisher [of eponymous blog fame] is tentative about the idea. While he is pro-Compassion [surprised?], he is on the fence re the charter idea, being drawn to some negatory ideas he shares with Sharon Jacoby: 1) there is already a Universal Declaration of Human Rights that covers the same ground, and 2) while all major religions believe in something close to the same thing as this compassion thing, not all read it the same way.

In a long, thoughtful post, About.com's Barbara of Barbara's Buddhism Blog takes stern issue with Jacoby's objections. She writes: "Jacoby's reaction amounts to a knee-jerk recitation of all of her resentments about religion, whether they relate to what Armstrong said or not. Judging by the title of her comment -- 'On The Unreliability of Compassion Without Enforceable Law' -- she equates 'compassion' with 'good behavior,' which is not how I understand compassion. Compassion that must be enforced is not compassion." Barbara seems to like the charter idea, though she doesn't quite say so explicitly.

Rod, the whinny behind "...worst horse," alerts us to the charter thing, but expresses no view.

Bill of Integral Options Cafe writes, "I'm late coming to this, but The Charter for Compassion is a great idea that I think deserves more attention ..." ["More attention," I think it's starting to get.]

Me, I have some discomfort with the effort, beyond just Armstrong's goofy try to snag some of that Obama mojo. "Yes We Can!," indeed.

I hate to see "compassion" become something we hit people over the head with: "Be compassionate, damn it, you vulgarians, you."

Or see a Dogma of Compassion develop. To get compassion you must meet our regulations for compassion.

And what about the slippery slope!? Sure, a bunch of fat-hearted people want compassion universalized now -- but what next!? Love? Kindness? No meat eating? A reversal of California's Prop. 8!? Rush Limbaugh taken off the radio? Universal health care? Storming the Winter Palace?

Nah. Compassion is like wildflowers and not like veal farming. We must allow it to sprout where it will.

As for Barbara's objection to Sharon's objections: IMHO, if we "charterize" compassion, then it becomes a code, a rule, a command. It morphs into a regulation mandating behavior: Compassion made remorseless -- that is, incompassionate.

November 14, 2008

Five for Obama: Movies I'd Like the Prez-Elect to See

Inspired by Danny Fisher's post and selections, I will follow in the kind reverand's wake and choose five films that I would like Barack Obama to see before he becomes our 44th president.

As Danny tells us, a UK Guardian film blogger, Xan Brooks, started this meme, posting the following challenge to his readers: "If there were five films that [Obama] needed to see before settling into the job, which ones would they be? What are the ones that should stand as his touchstones as he prepares for the biggest task of all?"

Here are my selections:

1. First, I will kipe The Corporation from Danny's List for mine. It is definitely a movie I would want Barack to see and think about. This documentary may or may not be fair and even-handed, but it does reveal a lot about the psychotic nature of corporations which have become the dominate force in our country and have become most adult individuals' masters.

2. Both Danny Fisher and Xan Brooks chose Robert Alman's political farce Nashville for their lists. I'll pass on that one since it doesn't touch much on the administration component of being president. On his list, Danny included Warren Beatty's political film Bulworth. I'll pass on that one, too, since I don't remember it that well. Instead I'll choose a political film that focuses a lot [but not exclusively] on administration. My choice is a Preston Sturges's gem about a Chicago mayor faced with a corrupt system and the dangers of being honest: The Great McGinty.

3. Since Brooks already chose The Grapes of Wrath as a message to Obama to keep the suffering of others in mind during these Hard Times we've entered, and since I already recommended Sullivan's Travels to readers of this blog, my "Hard Times" recommendation to Obama is The 400 Blows, François Truffaut’s delightful story of the tribulations and trials of a boy who stumbles into trouble in post-WWII France.

4. Since Obama will be Top Dog over one of the world's most awesome and troubling beaurocracies, I would want him to see Akira Kurosawa's quasi-comedy Ikiru. This 1952 Japanese movie was the inspiration for another, more recent, better-known great beaurocracy-out-of-control film, Monty Python Terry Gillam's 1980 farce Brazil. But of those two movies, Ikiru is the masterpiece. I believe that Ikiru is Kurosawa's response to Capra's film It's a Wonderful Life, but instead of the protagonist almost committing suicide, Ikiru's protagonist is definitely dying of stomach cancer at the beginning of the movie. And, instead of being Christian-themed, it's Buddhism-themed. Yowza!

and 5. Because I worry about justice in America and rendition and Gitmo and plea bargaining and more, I would like Barack to see my favorite Al Pacino film, ...And Justice for All. Madness, madness, reality, madness. "You're out of order! You're out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They're out of order!"

November 13, 2008

Jimmy Roughton

Jimmy Roughton speaking before the Union Gospel Mission congregation.

In my “On Love” post I wrote six weeks ago, I beat up a bit on the Union Gospel preachers, and particularly on most mission-goers’ [and my personal] favorite Jimmy Roughton for being cowardly in preaching on love – that is, neighborly love or agape.

Jimmy Roughton was the UGM preacher yesterday and he got into the love-stuff some in a return to his high form. At his best his sermons have a point and an arc. And, always, Roughton displays amazing passion and showmanship. He is a riveting speaker; he is loud, passionate, with grand gestures; his eyes dart as he makes contact with individuals in his audience. He doesn’t make use of a text; he doesn’t need one – he knows his stuff and what he is going to say and speaks without pauses or stumbles. He begins on the pulpit at the lectern, but as his message unspools he makes his way down to the chapel floor. A part of his charm is that Roughton comically – mockingly – does a good job imitating classes of people: False Christians, atheists and rationalizing substance abusers are prime targets.

Often he has been discretely miked so that he can roam, but yesterday he made do with just being loud.

Much of his sermon yesterday compared Moses with Jesus. Moses was a common man, a murderer, an imperfect servant of God. Jesus, of course, is God. Both Moses and Jesus went to a mountain. Moses was met by God at his mountain, where he was given the stone tablets that proclaimed the Ten Commandments, fast instructions from God on how to behave. Jesus met Satan and temptation on his mountain; Jesus’s challenge was a test of character.

Citing the Book of Hebrews, Roughton told us the Old Testament’s hard rules were notably not successful. Only two of the some two million Jews who fled Egypt made it to the Promised Land. The Jews lacked faith in God. The New Testament idea of changing your character is what God truly seeks, according to Roughton. Changing one’s heart is what is sought. If we become pure of heart [change our character], THAT will empower us to be good Christians and from that our behavior will become good. Being good, love will naturally flow between us and our neighbors.

There are interesting similarities between this and Buddhism. Buddha’s earliest teaching is the Dhammapada: Rules to live by, similar somewhat to the Ten Commandments. Later teachings by the Buddha that Mahayana Buddhists [including Western Buddhists, natch] gravitate toward are unmapable pathways toward having a better heart.

November 10, 2008

The cross, blood and Lenny Bruce

Reverend Tom Mooney is the Union Gospel Mission’s premier in-house preacher. Like the mostly Baptist preachers outside the mission, he has a slot on the rescue mission’s monthly roster. And, like only a few of the other evening preachers, he also participates in the warm-up entertainment section -- with music performed by his band, Last Day’s Harvest. Mooney plays guitar and is the lead singer.

In his evening sermon last night, Rev. Mooney was different than how he usually is. In past months when I’ve heard him, he is mostly very tough on his chapel audience, bringing forward visions of torment in hell and rebuking his audience, telling us to pull our sorry lives together by finding Christ.

Last night, Rev. Mooney was subdued and more reflective. He talked a little about his tough early life, growing up in a home with battling parents that neglected him, but said that many of those of us sitting in the chapel surely have had things worse than he. [I hadn’t; but I can well imagine that many of the guys I know have had lives of financial hardship in homes where there are chronic arguments and substance-abuse issues.]

The cross that masks the lecturn at the front of the pulpit at Union Gospel Mission.
Mooney then spoke for many minutes about something that really surprised me. At the pulpit and then after walking out front of the stage, he talked, generally, about the cross. Without attributing it, he first used a variation on a famous 1950s Lenny Bruce joke, asking If Jesus died today, would people be wearing electric chairs around their necks? Curious thing, there is a very prominent cross, front and center in the chapel that masks the lecturn [See picture].

Mooney is right, of course, in starkly pointing out how peculiar the cross symbol is. It is used as jewelry, often studded with rhinestones, proclaiming a wearer’s Christian belief. But it is a torture devise; Jesus was murdered on a cross at Calvary. While Christ’s harrowing, excruciating death is what provides believers entry to heaven [by a logic I can’t get my mind around], the importance of Christ’s life, including three years of teaching, seems subsumed by concentration of interest in his death followed by his resurrection.

Writes Edward Ingebretsen, culture critic and rhethoric scholar, in his book At Stake:
For motives of class sensitivity, modern believers erase, forget, or else ignore the taint of Jesus’ crucifixion that occludes its representation. Lenny Bruce quips that wearing the crucifix is akin to wearing an electric chair around one’s neck; the nervous, shocked laughter of his audience makes the point well enough. For this audience to think about what the cross means is as much a taboo as speaking about it or representing it in public places. Blinkered from history, then, contemporary believers rarely see the crucifix (or worse, its ideologically sanitized image, the cross) as the insufferable “sign of contradiction” that it is. Indeed, a respected Catholic churchman can say, with a breathtaking lack of historical consciousness, that “the cross coerces no one. It offends only those who are intolerant of the Catholic faith.” To the contrary, offense is central to its meaning.
One curious thing about Mooney’s message being inspired by Bruce’s insight: The idea of an electric chair being the contemporary equivalent of the cross is out-of-date. Electric chairs aren’t used in the United States much any more. According to wikipedia, only Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia allow use of the electric chair, as an alternative to legal injection. In Illinois and Oklahoma it’s the back-up if other forms of execution are found unconstitutional. Legal Injection is now our country’s prevalent death devise. Maybe if Christ had been killed in our day and in our country, his followers would begin wearing necklace pendants shaped like hypodermic needles.

But while I find merit to Mooney’s criticism of the cross symbol, it seems to be contradicted by Mooney’s band’s frequent use of blood in its songs. The songs’ message is consistently one of praising and thanking Jesus for dying as He did so that we may be washed of our sins in His blood.

The blood thing seems to have qualities to object to that mirror those of the cross. Both Jesus's blood and the cross refer to Jesus being crucified. Both the blood and the cross are things that Christians seem to have a strange, loving fascination with -- but it is only the cross that bothers Pastor Mooney.

I understand that Jesus’s death is this vastly significant sacrifice that satisfies a bloodlust that had been met by slaughtering animals. And that Jesus’s death put an end to the practice of sacrifice to God. But isn’t it ghoulish to concentrate our interest in the blood that Jesus shed? Couldn’t/Shouldn't our interest focus, instead, on sorrow we have for the suffering He endured?

November 8, 2008

Did Obama Get Help from "The Cosby Show?"

…one idea seems to be gaining traction, and improbably it has Bill Cosby and Karl Rove in agreement: “The Cosby Show,” which began on NBC in 1984 and depicted the Huxtables, an upwardly mobile black family — a departure from the dysfunction and bickering that had characterized some previous shows about black families — had succeeded in changing racial attitudes enough to make an Obama candidacy possible. – central paragraph in a New York Times story on Nov. 7.
I certainly remember fondly “The Cosby Show,” which ran on NBC at 8pm, the anchor comedy leading a string of four sitcoms on Thursday evenings through 1992. “Family Ties” and “Cheers” were two of the other sitcoms that appeared on NBC’s powerhouse-ratings night.

I don’t doubt the “The Cosby Show” helped a little with improving racial attitudes in this country, but I always found myself wincing a bit whenever I saw the show. Bill Cosby’s character, Cliff Huxtable, was always being teased and berated by his wife Claire, played by Phylicia Rashad, in the episodes I saw. A little troubling to me, looking back at it now – though I don’t think it has had any political significance – is that Barack and Michelle’s relationship seemed too much like Cliff and Claire’s when we first came to know Michelle, with the woman seeming too much the boss in the relationship.

In the sitcom, Cliff and Claire engaged in comedy banter where Cliff would typically act as straight man and Claire would deliver the mild-insult zinger. Almost always Cliff wasn’t wholly in the wrong -- Cliff wasn’t a milquetoast or straw man – but he seldom was allowed to be in the right as the script played out, or show the strength that Claire did.

Today, in the warm glow of the election result, Barack and Michelle are portrayed as a model couple, in articles like the San Francisco Examiner’s “Barack and Michelle Obama-A Family Business” and the Baltimore Sun’s “Barack and Michelle: A modern first marriage?” But from what I remember, in 2007 when Barack was first powering-up his effort to get into the presidential race, Barack was lavishly deferential to his wife, giving her bodacious credit for his good family life and career success and Michelle seemed blunt and curiously too much in command. She seemed to be a supercharged Hillary, which was perhaps the campaign plan. In retrospect, the introduction of Michelle to the nation was a dud. The nation wasn’t craving another Bill & Hill soap opera with all its attached psychodrama.

I don’t think I’m wrong in remembering that Michelle’s role in the campaign was curtailed after her misinterpreted – yet not politically savvy -- remark “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country.” It was only during and subsequent to the Democrat Convention that Michelle returned and was re-introduced to the country. After the convention, Michelle, usually making appearances without Barack, was used to great effect in a role ballyhooing the merits of her husband, the candidate.

I know it may not be politically correct to say so, but weak husbands with bossy wives is one of the stereotypes of African-Americans that still needs to be overcome. While the Cliff-Claire characters were not the weak & bossy stereotype, that stereotype was not challenged in “The Cosby Show” whereas a great many other stereotypes were.

Too, because the Huxtables were a very upper-middleclass black family, their civilized behavior – if that’s the right term – did not break with white-bigoted expectations as it would have had the family beeng poor or middleclass with the show’s strong family cohesion and the love expressed between family members. The show, as it was, did not swim against the stream of bigotry as much as it might have and is given credit for.

Still, the sitcom was funny and wildly successful in the United States and I have been delighted to hear of the impact “The Cosby Show” had worldwide in syndication. Due to the nature of their societies, the show probably has done much more to confront bigotry in the nation of South Africa than in the U.S.

So, was “The Cosby Show” a necessary precursor to the Obama victory? I doubt it. Obama is the unique, right person for the moment -- someone whose personal qualities and policy positions have been pitch-perfect. Like Lincoln, Obama was an unexpected, brilliant candidate who came from Illinois to win the job of American President. He did it on his own. Oh, all right: He did it on his own, with help from Michelle.

November 7, 2008

More Nishitani: re the "field of emptiness" or sunyata

I find this wonderful from a section of a 1982 paper by Frederick J. Streng titled "Three approaches to authentic existence: Christian, Confucian, and Buddhist." It tries to point a finger toward how things are "inside" Nishitani's "field or emptiness":

... the "field of emptiness" is not a substantive reality, but much more a state of consciousness which gives a certain quality or character to the arising and dissipation of existence. The emptiness which Nishitani talks about is not a nihilum as in the notion of nihilism. Rather it is a continual emptying of the self-centered grasp of personality and attachments to things. The interplay between the affirmative and negative aspects in emptiness, however, is perceived only when one realizes that it requires a complete negation of any abstraction of emptiness or being-in-itself. Thus, this is a radical kind of negativity which seeks to plumb the very depths of a notion of emptiness by negating even "emptiness" as a notion. Only by negating the particular forms of one's experience can one get beyond the negation itself to a sense that there is an intrinsic relatedness between all things. One must pass through the nihilism of nihilistic existentialism, which, in simply negating essences, judges life to be absurd. Nishitani claims that once a person passes through the claim of absolute negativity as the opposite to a universal essence (that is, "being-itself"), then one does not perceive life as absurd when confronted with nonbeing; nor need a person develop his or her ego strength as a superman or wonder woman. Rather, a new "mode of being" (nonattaching to being-itself) takes form as one moves through the depth of nihilism.

The deep realization of the emptiness of everything makes it possible to penetrate the ontological reality of all particular things while at the same time affirming the relative reality of particular things in existence. Emptiness, as understood here, is not a reality as being-itself, nor as a part of the intrinsic rhythm of all change; there is no reality outside the language system that correlates with the notion of emptiness. This is affirmed not because there is nothing whatsoever outside the language system, but because words are seen to be powerful, but inaccurate, constructors of experienced reality. Ontological terms should not be seen primarily as indicators of some thing outside of the language system in a one-to-one correlation with any concept. Thus, to perceive the nature of emptiness--in distinction to the notion of "emptinees"--is to avoid identifying this term with some presumed substance or principle. As soon as emptiness is taken as a reality either in the subject or as a reality outside of the self, it is no longer the root source for both the subjective and objective experience.

The effort to avoid both an absolute nihilism and a simply negative pole of an essentialism is matched only by the intensity with which Nishitani affirms that one must perceive the relationships between particular things while at the same time maintaining their particularity. He says that from the standpoint of emptiness, each thing is itself while not being itself, is not itself while being itself; its 'being' is unreal in its truth and true in its unreality. This may sound queer at first but, in fact, through such a view, we are enabled for the first time to conceive a 'force' by virtue of which all things are gathered and brought into relationship to one another--a 'force' which, since ancient times, has been called nature (physis, natura).

If one were not to assume this intrinsic relatedness through the "ground of emptiness," Nishitani is ready to admit, something would exist "in-itself," namely, when it is separate from everything outside of itself. In the everyday conventional subject-object awareness, the identification of something-in-itself is significant because it excludes what is not-itself. This results in a total lack of being able to perceive the nature of anything outside of oneself, and finally ends up in a chaotic awareness. "Only on the field of emptiness," Nishitani continues, "where being is being-nothingness as well as nothingness-being, is it possible that each being is itself in the face of all the others, and thus, at the same time, is not itself to all the others."

The result of perceiving the world from this standpoint is that the uniqueness of a thing requires that it is situated as the root center of all other things. The relationship that particular unique things have with each other while being essentially interrelated is called "circuminsessional'' by Nishitani. When a particular thing recognizes its basic character as "no-self nature" it recognizes that its being is one with emptiness; by letting go of its own "self" it becomes a participant in the center of all other unique particulars. From the standpoint of emptiness, then, a thing "is" in terms of its own "selfhood" when it both is subordinate to all other things and at the same time becomes the center for all other things.

Since the field of emptiness is also identified as the field of the "circuminsessional relationship," all things manifest their own reality when they have let go of grasping after some unique essence of themselves and found their own absolute selfhood in complete interrelatedness. The mode of being which is the genuine "suchness" of a thing is that it is inaccessible to identifying it simply with either the subject or the object; rather something really "is" when it is identical with itself and at the same time with other things. All things in the world, then, are seen to be interrelated. To be interrelated means being both the center and the supportive aspect of, or subordinate to, another thing at the same time. The absolute interdependency that one thing has with another for its own unique selfhood is expressed by the term "circuminsessional," in which "all things in their 'being' thus enter into another home-ground, are not themselves and, nevertheless precisely as such (i.e., on the field of emptiness) are themselves to the very end." This web of circuminsessional interpenetration is called by Nishitani a "mode of being"; it is "the thing's in-itself mode of being, its nonobjective mode of being as 'middle,' its selfness."

November 6, 2008

the Unraveling of American Justice: Plea bargaining

American justice nowadays is a sham. It is easy to see how things devolved to get where they are: there is a constant flood of accused people that need to be processed through a system that is a maze built around byzantine laws. To deal with the deluge, the system is radically dependent on plea bargaining to lop out of the process the most-expensive step, people's right to trial.

Because bargained pleas are known -- by those in the know, and not me, until now -- to be such fantastic deals compared to the price that'll be paid if a case goes to trial and one is convicted, even fully innocent people take a plea bargain [aka, cop a plea] instead of undergoing the risks of trial and a decision made by an unpredictable jury swayed by emotion.

In his 2002 article for Slate, "Why Innocent People Confess," Michael Kingsley tells the story of the so-called Central Park Jogger's supposed rapists of, now, 18 years ago. Five teenaged boys confessed to raping and nearly killing a park jogger. Turns out, years after their conviction, the boys were exonerated by DNA evidence. Why in the world did the boys avoid a trial for a crime they had nothing to do with? Because the evidence at the time of trial was overwhelming in the pre-DNA days of 1988 when the crime occured, so, in order to avoid risk of life in prison [or death penalties?], the boys implicated each other and copped a plea.

Kingsley explains the plea bargaining situation in America thus [Emphases, mine]:

... for every one criminal conviction that comes after a trial, 19 other cases are settled by plea bargain. And when, as part of a plea bargain, innocent people confess to a crime they did not commit, that isn't a breakdown of the system. It is the system working exactly as it is supposed to. If you're the suspect, sometimes this means agreeing with the prosecutor that you will confess to jaywalking when you're really guilty of armed robbery. Sometimes, though, it means confessing to armed robbery when you're not guilty of anything at all.

In 1978 Professor John Langbein, now of Yale Law School, wrote a dazzling and soon-famous article in the Public Interest called "Torture and Plea Bargaining." Langbein compared the modern American system of plea bargaining to the system of extracting confessions by torture in medieval Europe. In both cases, the controversial practice arose not because standards of justice were too low, but because they were too high. In medieval Europe, a conviction for murder required either two eyewitnesses or a confession by the perpetrator. This made it almost impossible to punish the crime of murder, which was an intolerable situation. So, torture developed as a way to extract the necessary confessions.

Plea bargaining evolved the same way, Langbein explained. As our official system of justice became larded with more and more protections for the accused, actually going through the process of catching, prosecuting, and convicting a criminal the official way became impossibly burdensome. So, the government offered the accused a deal: You get a lighter sentence if you save us the trouble of a trial. Or, to put it in a more sinister way: You get a heavier sentence if you insist on asserting your constitutional rights to a trial, to confront your accusers, to privacy from searches without probable cause, to avoid incriminating yourself, etc.
But the situation is really far worse than this -- that is, it is even worse than citizens' deprivation of their rights as defendants! Impartial judges and defendants are effectively left out of the bargaining process that goes on between the prosecutor and defense attorneys, who rely on incomplete -- to the level of sketchy or wrong -- grasps of essential facts. And, of course, in this rump justice system that we have, "the people" are not being protected by laws that are just. Thus, American "justice" is injustice, for all concerned or unconcerned.

In a Cato think tank paper, published in Regulation, titled "The Case Against Plea Bargaining," Timothy Lynch argues the rather obvious, that plea bargaining "... should be abolished since the practice is unconstitutional." First Lynch explains our terrible situation and then he relates the circumstances in Bordenkircher v. Hayes, a watershed 1978 U. S. Supreme Court ruling, decided 5 - 4, that determined that plea bargaining was OK.

The story that led to the ruling is a sad one: Paul Lewis Hayes was indicted for passing a forged check in the tiny amount of $88.30. He was offered a sentence of five years by the prosecutor, and threatened with a new charge of life imprisonment, under Kentucky's "Habitual Criminal Act," if he didn't take the deal. Hayes insisted on his right to trial, was convicted, and given a life sentence. On appeal, Hayes's attorney argued that the prosecutor violated the Constitution by threatening to punish him for simply invoking his right to trial. The government side admitted that that was exactly what happened, but was not improper. The Court decided against Hayes with this rationale: There is "no element of punishment or retaliaion so long as the accused is free to accept or reject the prosecution's offer."

Quoting the Court in another context, Lynch writes, "It always is for the interest of a party under duress to choose the lesser of two evils. But the fact that a choice was made according to interest does not exclude duress. It is the charactistic of duress properly so called."

Lynch also tells us, "the Supreme Court has repeatedly invalidated [government actions] that were purposely designed to coerce individuals and organizations into surrendering their constitutional rights" and he offers many examples of this.

Also, Lynch shows that plea bargaining rests on a constitutional fiction. Here a quote of Chief Justice Young of the Federal District Court of Massachusetts, from the article [Emphases, mine]:
Evidence of sentencing disparity visited on those who exercise their Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury is today stark, brutal, and incontrovertible. True, there was always a sentencing discount for those who plead guilty and turn state’s evidence. In this District that discount used to range from 33% to 45%. Today, under the Sentencing Guidelines regime with its vast shift of power to the executive, that disparity has widened to an incredible 500%.
...
Not surprisingly, such disparity imposes an extraordinary burden on the free exercise of the right to an adjudication of guilt by one’s peers. Criminal trial rates in the United States and in this District are plummeting due to the simple fact that we punish people–punish them severely– simply for going to trial. It is the sheerest sophistry to pretend otherwise. This is nothing new, of course. Sugarcoat it as we may with terms like “acceptance of responsibility” for those who cooperate, we have always punished those who demand that the government carry its constitutionally-mandated burden of persuasion beyond a reasonable doubt before an American jury.
Michael O'Hear, a Marquette University professor, in a paper called "Plea Bargaining and Procedural Justice," is sympathetic to situations that are similar to mine. He writes:
Many defendants welcome the impersonal, rapid-fire nature of the routine case processing mode, preferring just to "get in over with" in cases that are unlikely to result in substantial sentences of incarceration. From a procedural justice standpoint, though, the concern is that not all defendants are content letting the police report do the talking for them.

Even if the report is entirely accurate, the defendant may have a "story" to tell that would contextualize the information collected by the police. And even if that context is irrelevant to the lawyers' assessment of the case, it may nonetheless be subjectively important to the defendant to tell his or her side of the story. Yet, in the routine case processing mode, the defendant may have no opportunity to do so until after the prosecutor has decided what the plea offer will be (if at all). Given the realities of criminal defense -- notoriously overburdened public defenders and private defense lawyers whose practice economics also demand speedy case processing -- the defendant's lawyer will often spend little time with the defendant before an agreement is reached with the prosecutor. At that point, the pressure will be on the defendant simply to consent to the deal without troubling anyone with new information. In such a case, the defendant would be well justified in concluding that he or she has no real voice in the process.
"...no real voice in the process." I'll say!